Nikki Ernst


Legendary Links

Telling the stories of the grads who came before deepens our connection to the U of A and to each other

By Ellen Schoeck, ’72 BA(Hons), ’77 MA,

June 12, 2023 •

One Friday evening in 1999, I met someone who would change my life.

The man was Hugh Morrison, ’30 BA. We were both at the Myer Horowitz Theatre for an alumni reception and we bonded over our shared education paths — though we had graduated more than 40 years apart. We hit it off and Hugh told me about his life in the 1920s and 1930s.

Hugh was set to study law, as his father had, but what enthralled him were the lectures on Shakespeare by professor Edmund Broadus, ’33 LLD (Honorary). Hugh decided to give up law to study English and he excelled. In 1930, he received a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford, where he learned from soon-to-be illustrious writers. Among his professors were J.R.R. Tolkien, who two decades later would publish the first book in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and C.S. Lewis, lay theologian and author of the Chronicles of Narnia.

In the early 1940s, Hugh took a leave from his job with the fledgling CBC to join the war effort, eventually carrying secret messages for the British government. He became part of the renowned network run by William Stephenson, a Canadian spymaster perhaps better known by his wartime code name, Intrepid. “Part of my job was to pass messages and documents to another operative at the British Embassy in Washington,” Hugh told me. He recalled that, at nearly two metres tall, the operative was easy to spot. While the two never spoke, Hugh later learned the tall spy was Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Listening to Hugh’s stories that evening, I was mesmerized by the simple joy of hearing what life was like so many years ago: vibrant, exciting and a little on the edge. But I also felt cheated that after all the years I had spent on campus I knew so little of the people who had passed through. I saw only their exteriors — nothing of the stories within.

I decided to document the experiences of older alumni so that new grads would know the glories, the scary moments and the contributions of those who came before them. Those stories made up my first U of A history, I Was There, and would inspire the four books that followed.

Hugh died at age 98, in May 2006. Meeting him started a ripple effect that hasn’t stopped. If it weren’t for our chance encounter, I wouldn’t have met Sylvia Evans, ’33 BA, a high-ranking officer in the Second World War who fought for equal pay between men and women in the service, or learned of David Ho Lem, ’37 BCom, believed to be the first Chinese-Canadian to graduate from the U of A. Nor would I have met the hundreds of other alumni who have been gracious enough to share their memories with me.

As U of A grads, we are connected by the buildings in which we sat through lectures, memories of the crunch before exams and the crests on diplomas and degrees tucked away or hanging on our walls. These stories connect us, too. I never met J.R.R. Tolkien, but I know someone who did: Hugh.

And I am different because of him.

About the Author

Ellen Schoeck, ’72 BA(Hons), ’77 MA, spent 37 years on campus as a student and administrator. She has written five U of A histories including I Was ThereBorn to Build and her latest, Taking Charge, a history of the Students’ Union and Graduate Students’ Union.

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